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MERCED - Perhaps no project in California needs an image lift more than high-speed rail.

But after trying for five months to hire a public relations company to help with that effort, state rail officials elected Tuesday to go without, at least temporarily.

California High-Speed Rail Authority board members told staff in Merced to put on hold the authority's effort to replace its current, $9 million contract with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, which has been winding down since Ogilvy announced this summer it was quitting.

The authority plans to let the Ogilvy contract expire next week while rail officials consider handling public relations in-house.

The decision follows a report by The Bee this month that the rail authority, in addition to its payments to Ogilvy, was spending millions of dollars on regional, outreach-related sub-contracts embedded in engineering contracts. Last fiscal year, the authority spent $7.2 million on those outreach contracts, and it budgeted about $2.6 million for regional outreach this year.

Lance Simmens, the authority's deputy director for communications and public policy, said in a memorandum to authority board members that he is considering relying on those regional contractors for the authority's statewide outreach campaign, augmented by the addition of six to 10 in-house positions.

The development comes at a critical point for the state's nearly-$100 billion bid to build a high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project is heading into the New Year with diminished public support, and it remains unclear if the Legislature will approve funding next year.


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